On Jan. 10, Jeff Groff, the Estate Historian at Winterthur, delivered a lecture on the 19th and 20th centuries of the Main Line at the Radnor Fire House. Entitled “More English than England,” Groff argued that the Main Liners of the “Gilded Age” not only attempted to transplant English culture and architecture to the Main Line, but also added their own “Americanization” to it. In essence, they were endeavoring to outdo the English by adding an American flare to a civilization that had existed for 1,000 years.
The Main Line of Philadelphia followed the rail line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, stretching west from 30th Street Station. The Pennsylvania Railroad owned quite a lot of the land along the tracks and sought to develop the area as a retreat from Philadelphia with an eye to European culture. The Pennsylvania Railroad even influenced the name changes of towns, as exemplified by Humphreysville becoming Bryn Mawr. Clubs, red fox hunts and large manor houses sprung up in these towns. Charities, schools and churches soon followed them. Main Liners often travelled to Europe and brought back artifacts, as well as the latest fashions, to the States. It was a time dedicated to both community and style, but such a lifestyle could not be long supported. After the creation of the income tax, the cost of running large estates became a burden to many of the families. The estates were subdivided, and smaller houses were built, which, as Groff noted, were also completed in a European style.
Alexander Cassat’s 514-acre Chesterbrook Farm was a prime example of the transplant of the English country estate with an American touch. Groff pointed out that while maintaining the farm’s Revolutionary War colonial buildings Cassat added a main house that had modern American comfort and innovation, but a design that harked back to an English architectural past.
The estate houses of the Main Line denoted power and wealth, but as opposed to English society, each generation wanted to create their own statement, and the preservation of estates in families was not common. Groff posed the question, “Is Main Line still more English than England?” Although many of the estates are gone, there are elements of this era that still remain: the houses are prized, many of the clubs still exist and the Devon Horse Show is still held year after year. Thus, the Main Line provides a unique setting that to this day combines both European and American heritage.
Source: Jeff Groff